Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pacifica Meltdown: The Price of Democracy

Rob Robinson, a member of Pacifica Radio’s National Board representing WPFW in Washington, DC, has been working on programming issues for years. In 2006, he finally succeeded in getting a National Programming Policy adopted, although several key elements were sidetracked and few people have read it. In early September, at a meeting of the network’s Programming Committee, he explained again that stations are losing listeners and not meeting on-air pledge goals. The current programming schedules aren’t attracting enough people, he argued, and the audience is aging. “I’m not trying to dictate to management,” he promised, yet he stressed that some accountability is needed.

The Committee’s main business that night was to deal with a series of new proposals Robinson had put forward in his role as chair. But those on the phone were also thinking about a motion referred to them by the Pacifica National Board. Concerned about listenership, the Board was asking the Committee to consider a series of “performance requirements” for managers developed by KPFK director Grace Aaron.

The basic idea is that Program Directors, Station Managers, and the Executive Director should be working to increase listenership by 7 percent each quarter, or else have their failure to do so “kept on file” as part of performance evaluations. Some Board members had problems with the idea. “Magical thinking doesn’t work,” said KPFA Director Bonnie Simmons. “I can’t imagine people working under this system.” Others called it reckless, arbitrary, and punitive.

In the end, the motion was passed, but mainly because it would be referred to the Programming Committee for further consideration. When the Committee met, however, it wasn’t ready to deal with the issue, and Robinson said that his intention wasn’t “to implement a specific growth rate.” Still, one of his proposals was to establish “quantifiable programming goals designed to reach new listeners, convert them and get renewals.”

Another was to develop “objective measures to evaluate programs and schedules.” Revenue isn’t the only way to measure a show’s success, he said, but there should be “incentives” to free up space and develop new programs. Since the 16-member Committee didn’t have a quorum, it was clear from the start that no decisions would be made. But that would have been unlikely anyway, since there was disagreement about most of Robinson’s ideas. George Reiter, a director representing KPFT in Houston, saw the proposal for evaluating programs and schedules as a way to spark change, but Simmons found it troubling and advised asking the staff how they felt. “We shouldn’t throw lofty but impossible things at the stations,” she cautioned. KPFK Board Member Sherna Gluck looked for common ground, suggesting that people needed to be reminded that the current national policy hasn’t been implemented.

Robinson also urged that resources be allocated to reach larger audiences “by helping current shows and developing new programs.” WBAI Board members Lisa Davis and Cathy Davis were uncomfortable with that, noting that cutbacks at their station are being considered and the staff there should determine the needs. Next, Robinson suggested that money be “reallocated” to produce “quality news programs, documentaries, and specials,” noting that most stations don’t carry the network’s “Headline News” service and too often rely on soft-edged “talking head” interviews. Several people objected strongly to his analysis and defended their local news operations. The real problem, several people asserted, is training.

When Robinson proposed “national access to local airwaves,” the chorus of objections was almost unanimous, even when he stressed collaboration and local initiatives. Simmons and Lisa Davis opposed the suggestion that stations “must carry” any program. “Mandating builds in failure,” Simmons argued. The consensus was that the National Programming Coordinator should suggest some local shows for national distribution, but stations shouldn’t be forced to air them.

Another idea was to consolidate and coordinate the network’s news operations. After discussing the uniqueness of local news, as well as Free Speech Radio News and the DC News Bureau, the group agreed that better communication would help but the proposal itself should be dropped.

Finally, Robinson urged more aggressive digital distribution of programs. Cathy Davis agreed but added that it should be handled “station by station,” while Simmons argued that the real issue is “getting people to focus” on the network’s best shows.

In the end, while there seemed to be agreement that improving programming would eventually increase revenue, the Committee remained stymied on how to do it. The overall thrust was that stations and their staffs are best equipped to make any needed changes, and forcing the issue won’t help. Robinson’s assertions that Pacifica currently has no standards, that station schedules haven’t significantly changed for years, and that listeners are rejecting them failed to persuade.

The stalemate over programming reflects a more general problem, the difficulty in making any substantive changes with a management and governance structure that imposes a complex deliberative process, and requires input from literally hundreds of people prior to any action. Complaints about this often bring the response, “Democracy is messy.” But there’s more to it. If a group of people – for example, a local Board faction, or a group of unpaid staff members – or the management at one or two stations objects to something, they can usually block it by demanding consultation, threatening to protest, or simply ignoring the idea. One obvious result is that there has been no new ongoing national programming in a decade, since the launch of Democracy Now! Less obvious, but equally troubling, is the failure to adopt network-wide policies in key areas.

Pacifica has about a dozen national committees dealing with finances, governance, personnel, audits, programming, the internal election process, affiliates, allegations of racism and sexism, and so on. It also has a Coordinating Committee, which is supposed to keep the process moving. But many committees have trouble consistently achieving quorum, resulting in a work backlog, or are divided along various factional lines. The one committee that has been explicitly avoided in the 2002 bylaws is an “executive committee,” which could allow some decisions to be made when other parts of the system break down. Yet, some directors clearly have more influence than others.

On Sept. 7, when 11 members of the National Board convened in hopes of moving forward with a “strategic recovery plan” to deal with Pacifica’s current financial problems, nothing could be done because the other 11 Board members didn’t show up. This approach – preventing a decision through non-participation – is relatively common. It could be argued that such a response represents democracy in action – the withdrawal of consent – but the immediate result is inaction.

The meeting demonstrated the dynamics of the Board split. Those attending included two directors each from KPFK, KPFT and WPFW, three from WBAI (the winners in a highly contested election that led to a lawsuit), one director representing affiliate stations, and one from KPFA. All but two just joined the Board this year. The absent members included the other affiliate director, one from WBAI, plus the remaining three KPFA delegates (including the Board chair), and the remaining six directors from the other three stations, including the chairs of the Coordinating and Finance committees. Three in that group were elected by station staffs, and a majority have served on the Board for two years or more. In other words, the turnout suggests that the Board’s leadership, and most directors representing KPFA and staff, are at odds with a new insurgent group.

The bylaws impose some rules that have been difficult to follow. For example, the National Board is supposed to meet in person four times a year in specific months and a prescribed rotation between station areas. But this requirement has frequently been sidestepped, and the most recent quarterly meeting was postponed, then cancelled. Two attempts to change this meeting requirement have failed, due in part to other strict amendment requirements, and another attempt is currently underway. But another section of the bylaws says that amendments can only be put forward once every 12 months, so if several are proposed they all must be handled at the same time – unless the Board decides otherwise by a two-thirds vote.

At the moment, at least five possible amendments are in the pipeline. In addition to the one allowing the Board to reduce the number of in-person meetings (if two-thirds of the Board deems it necessary due to “emergency conditions”), proposals include allowing amendments at any time during a given year; a new category of “monthly” Board meetings that can be held by telephone, video conferencing or other means; allowing earlier election of Affiliates Directors, so that they can be seated along with others in January; and, possibly, elimination of bylaws language that describes the duties of election supervisors.

The election supervisor amendment is being considered in response to concerns that classifying national and local election supervisors as contractors despite the inclusion of their qualifications and specific job descriptions may violate California employment law. The solution being considered is to strike anything that describes job requirements or duties.

If the Board decides to move forward, any proposed changes – also according to the Bylaws – will have to be posted on the Foundation’s website and announced two times daily on all five sister stations for 60 days before each Local Station Board (LSB), as well as the Pacifica National Board (PNB), votes. All the voting must occur during the same month.

Fortunately, Pacifica isn’t electing new local board members this year. That will happen in 2009 and 2010, using a process that takes up to nine months and can cost $200,000. But each station will vote in January on who should represent it on the PNB, and after that, the National Board will have to reconstitute itself, holding new elections for officers and committee membership. That process can take up to two months, further slowing down the Board’s work.

In the midst of all this, Pacifica will have to fill some key management vacancies – Executive Director and Human Resources Director, and KPFA will continue to struggle with whom to appoint as permanent General Manager in the midst of an emerging local revolt. In addition, the PNB will be looking at a new job description for its Chief Financial Officer.

Last Spring, at the urging of Executive Director Nicole Sawaya, the Board decided that national financial staff should report to her. But Sawaya is leaving, and the Personnel Committee has meanwhile voted not to incorporate that reporting requirement into the new job description, while giving the CFO responsibility for investing Pacifica’s funds and managing its banking relationships. Thus, the situation may return to where it was before.

None of these problems are insurmountable. But the current financial crunch won’t make things easier, and, as if things weren’t tough enough, Hurricane Ike forced KPFT off the air on September 12. According to Sawaya and GM Duane Bradley, the staff is all right and power will soon be restored, but the transmitter site was burglarized. This is the longest period that the Houston station has been off the air since it was bombed about 38 years ago.

When the next ED is chosen, she or he is very likely to have a smaller national staff, and thus less ability to coordinate resources or advance new initiatives. There will be union negotiations at stations, a new Pacifica election season, and lingering complaints and lawsuits to resolve. At WBAI the cash crunch is severe enough that the PNB may be forced to either further tap Pacifica’s line of credit, let the station fail, or consider the unthinkable – sale of a station.

A decade ago, when the rumor that a station might be sold began to circulate, it added fuel to an already smoldering revolt. This time, if the option of selling an “asset” is publicly voiced by those in charge, the response could be different. The confederal structure put in place after the “Save Pacifica” movement makes change difficult, but also stresses that individual stations have a right to chart their own paths. The Local Board and management at KPFA, Pacifica’s flagship station, don’t always see eye to eye, but they do agree that the current crisis could put the station at risk. That makes it unlikely that KPFA’s stability will be further leveraged to save a sister station.

In a Sept. 12 open letter to KPFA supporters, a group of managers underlined the seriousness of the situation as the station prepares to begin a delayed on-air fund drive on Sept. 18. “Given the Pacifica Network's current financial condition,” they write, “if we don't raise the money we need soon, KPFA could have to close its doors.”

Yes, democracy is messy. But cleaning up this mess, with a divided Board and a fragile national structure, may well require sacrifices that put Pacifica’s version to the ultimate test.

To find out more, read Part One and Two of this series:

Part One: Quiet Meltdown on Planet Pacifica

Part Two: Budgeting for Triage

The Pacifica National Board met in Washington, DC, Sept. 19-21.To access archived recordings, go to See agenda below. Sources for these articles include meetings of the Pacifica National Board, National Finance Committee, Coordinating Committee, and Personnel Committee, LSB minutes, and members of the Pacifica community who provided information on condition of anonymity.

PNB meeting, Sept. 19 - 21, 2008: Preliminary Agenda

Friday, Sept. 19

10:00 AM - Executive Session, with legal update

12:00 - Lunch

1:00 PM - Open Session

Welcoming Remarks; roll call, approval of agenda/minutes

Executive Director's state of the network address

Updates: General & Specific

2:00 PM - By-law revisions

3:00 PM - Executive Session; solutions, strategies

4:00 PM - break

5:00 PM - Open Session - Host station presentation

5:45 PM - Public comment

7:00 PM - Reception

Saturday, Sept.20

9:00 AM Sharp – All Day Session: Finances/Budgets

Presentation and approval of 7 budgets; personnel issues; implications for re-organization; National Office staffing issues/ transition

Sunday, Sept.21

8:00 AM - PNB Public Session

Audit Committee report & presentation of new firm; report out on work; ED report

10:30 Public comment

11:30 Committee reports

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